Tag Archive: drugs

Tallulah in Silvertown

In Tallulah Bankhead’s autobiography there is an odd little anecdote concerning her adventures in London’s fast lane.

“In London I visited a charming little house in Chelsea, with a top-floor room lined with tinfoil.The habitues called it Silvertown. A quite respectable friend asked me if I’d like to smoke some opium.

Acceptance was obligatory for a femme fatale . I was fascinated by the preliminaries, melting the pellets, tamping them into the bowl of the pipe. My imagination running riot, I felt like the daughter of Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer’s malign Chinese. The effects were pleasant and dreamy. The world seemed uncommonly rosy but not for long…. On the way home, my escort and I became actively ill. We were so sick that we flung ourselves on my bed and collapsed. There my maid found us in the morning, ashen and wretched.”

As with most stories told by, or about, Tallulah, this needs taking with a pinch of salt (or perhaps coke).However, biographer Joel Lobenthal interviewed Glenn Anders, who confirmed the expedition to the “opium den”, although he denied that Bankhead indulged – then or at any other time. The latter part of his statement is patently untrue but it does allow us to place the visit in 1927, during the run of She Knew What She Wanted (see  https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2012/01/07/sir-patrick-hastingstallulah-bankhead-and-beatrix-lehmann/ ).

Tallulah would have been no stranger to the rituals of opium use. Her great love in her early London years had been the publicly-respectable but privately very louche Napier “Naps ” Alington , whose friendships with the likes of Princess Murat and Jean Cocteau were built around a mutual fondness for the drug.

Napier Alington

So, if it existed, whose was this house? Who was the respectable friend? Is Tallulah, as I suspect, collapsing a number of visits into one self-serving anecdote? She was seeing a lot of Gwen Farrar at the time but her residence, though certainly charming , hardly fits most people’s definition of small. However, Farrar’s circle included Dolly Wilde, Ruth Baldwin and Olivia Wyndham who were all opium-users and all lived in Chelsea for at least part of 1927. Then there are the Dean Pauls and the ubiquitous Tony De Gandarillas – but again one would hesitate to call them respectable. Bankhead did know most of these people, particularly the ones who frequented the Gargoyle Club on Dean Street – where Elvira’s guest Brian Howard was to later become almost a permanent feature. Howard had his own battles with opium but these had not really started yet.

Unfortunately, I can find no other reference to Silvertown in reminiscences of the era. I am fairly positive that there was such a room but it was probably in the house of an older,more seasoned and less well-known user. If anyone knows otherwise please get in touch. If nothing else, the anecdote indicates that drug use was an established aspect of Chelsea life, albeit a fairly discreet and “underground” one.

Silvertown is possibly a morbid reference to one of the great tragedies to hit London in the First World War when a munitions factory blew up, killing 73 people. See Silvertown Explosion .

Gwen Farrar

Gwendoline Farrar (1898-1944) appears in so many inter-War reminiscences and autobiographies  that I am surprised that nobody has deemed her worthy of a full length biography. Talented, eccentric and independent, she was as distinctive a character as any associated with Upper-Bohemia or The Bright Young People. Her connection to Elvira cannot be proved but, given that she was a hard-partying Chelsea resident and very close to Audrey Carten, Jo Carstairs and Ruth Baldwin, she moved in similar circles.

The upper echelons of the Bright Young People, Waugh’s beloved but, to me, rather unappealing “Guiness Set”,  rather dismissed her as she was a little older than them and too much part of “popular culture”. Zita Jungman, sounding rather like the Victorian matriarchs her generation are supposed to have rebelled against, recalled, “Gwen Farrar was someone one saw on the stage… one didn’t see her socially.” – a statement as generally untrue as it is snobbish.Plenty of the 20s’ set saw her “socially”, at parties at her London address or out on the town, often accompanied by her friend and fellow free-spirit, Tallulah Bankhead.

Born into wealth and privilege, her father, Sir George Herbert Farrar, had South African mining interests, she had no more need to seek employment than Elvira or the Jungman sisters. In 1915 she inherited (along with her five sisters) a fortune that would allow her to purchase 217 King’s Road and a country house in Northamptonshire. She studied classical music and was taught cello by Herbert Walenn, England’s leading exponent of the instrument. She also developed a remarkable baritone speaking voice which she  was to use to great effect in her future career.

 Herbert Wallen by Elise Muriel Hatchard

During the First World War she joined Lena Ashwell’s company, entertaining the troops in France and Belgium. This forerunner of ENSA was established to bring high-culture to the ordinary soldiers but included lighter interludes. Elvira had a natural gift for comedy and began to develop an “act”. She met pianist and singer, Norah Blaney, and they formed an on and off-stage partnership that thrived in the early twenties. By 1925 , both were household names. Their duets, usually renditions of hits of the day, were often masterpieces of innuendo, Blaney taking the “female” role and Gwen  the “male”. Completely heterosexual lyrics were cleverly subverted. Most of the public remained innocent but those in the know “knew”, as it were.

Norah Blaney

They appeared in newsreel shorts, on early sound film experiments, in revues and West End shows, Music Hall and on the radio.

Away from the stage, Gwen Farrar was becoming known for hosting parties where serious drinking was the order of the day. She moved in several distinct but occasionally overlapping Lesbian subcultures. She knew Radclyffe Hall, Teddie Gerrard and from 1923 was very close to Jo Carstairs, who named her speedboat Newg  after her. She was also taken up by Tallulah Bankhead and took part in one of the early Bright Young Thing treasure hunts with her – ferried around London by Carstairs’ all-female chauffeur service. With Audrey Carten, she was arrested for punching a policeman who tried to stop her parking outside the Savoy and she seems to have had her share of (apparently obligatory) drunken car-crashes after various parties and nights out.

The partnership, professional and otherwise, with Norah Blaney ended in 1924, although they had several reunions. Her next major collaborator was the unjustly neglected pianist-composer Billy Mayerl, whose composition “Marigolds” was the most over-played piano piece of the inter-War years. Mayerl’s mixture of classical training, his incorporation of jazz stylings and his fondness for comic pastiche suited Gwen well and she also started writing revue material at this time.

Meanwhile, 217 King’s Road was becoming somewhat notorious. The location is significant. Part of a block of three houses, it was home to two other high-profile women. Lady Sybil Colefax lived at 213 and Syrie Maugham at 215.  Both were interior designers –  in fact both were the interior designers of their day. Sybil Colefax was a specialist in modernising upper-class living and drawing-rooms while Syrie, wife of Somerset Maugham, is the person who is largely responsible for the white interiors that remained dominant through to the Art Deco era.

Left        Room by Sybil Colefax                              Right        Syrie Maugham

Both women were great “society hostesses” and also rivals for the most prestigious guests. Their luncheons featured the literary, artistic and aristocratic “stars” of the day. Gwen’s luncheons and her other gatherings, though sprinkled with famous names, mainly featured alcohol and “high jinks”.

One of those who had access to all three establishments, the ubiquitous Beverley Nichols, described Gwen as “grotesque but endearing” and it may have been at 217 that he rejected Michael Stephen’s offer of cocaine. Drug use was certainly part of Gwen’s social world and by the late 1920s she was host to the racier Chelsea set, which may have included Elvira, but certainly included Olivia Wyndham, Ruth Baldwin and Audrey Carten.

213,215,217 King’s Road

Though she continued to perform and write throughout the 1930s, alcoholism had now set in. Her home was said increasingly to resemble a bar. The parties continued. At one in 1937, while Gwen and other guests were listening to a boxing match on the radio, Ruth Baldwin died of a heroin overdose. In the same year Gwen fell in love, as everyone seems to have done at some time, with Dolly Wilde who lived with her until 1939. It says something for Farrar’s lifestyle that Wilde’s former lover Natalie Barney was greatly worried about the deleterious effects on Wilde, another heroin/morphine addict, that Farrar’s endless partying was having.

Gwen Farrar died in 1944. Hers was one of the voices of the 1920s and her looks made her probably the most public “Lesbian” icon within the popular culture of the era.Her fondness for alcohol, her closeness to Tallulah Bankhead, her love of sport (she was an expert horsewoman) and her general attitude to life would all have appealed to Elvira. Farrar’s dry humour and keen intelligence may not have made such feelings mutual but I am certain that their paths often crossed.Even if they didn’t, Farrar deserves to be better known today than she seems to be . I find her both fascinating and rather likeable.

She Shall Have Music [VHS]

In the 1930s she made a few cameo appearances in British films – here she is in the fairly awful Jack Hylton feature “She Shall Have Music”. She played Miss Peachums, a stage-school “headmistress” in charge of a group of nubile young actresses. It was a role that I imagine she found amusing.

and here she is in her prime

Some of her work – with Norah Blaney and Billy Mayerl can be found on this invaluable CD also available as download at Amazon etc.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that Gwen Farrar was one of the first people to broadcast on television – an indication of her popular appeal. Her 20 minute slot in 1937 was entitled “Sophisticated Cabaret”   which is very fitting. Details can be found here

Radio Times January 1937

Anthea Rosemary Carew

Another of Elvira’s friends who did time in Holloway ( see  https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/12/11/medical-officers-report-on-elvira-dolores-barney/ ) was Brenda Dean Paul, whose decline into addiction received more publicity than even Elvira managed. Brenda will pop up quite often on this blog but some of the people around also deserve mention. Not the least of these is Anthea Rosemary Carew, another probable member of Elvira’s crowd.

Described by Brenda Dean Paul as her “staunchest” friend and by others as her “fast friend”, Anthea Carew was prosecuted, together with her good pal, a couple of months after the Barney trial. She had been attempting to buy cocaine from a “French Countess” for Ms Dean Paul. The details can be found in the newspaper reports below.

Two Young Women on Parole Sep 1932

Alleged Attempt to Procure Cocaine

Torn Letter in Drug Case

Brenda Dean Paul with  Anthea Carew

The first thing that struck me was the reference to “Terrence” in the letter to the “Countess”. Could this be Terence Skeffington-Smyth? I do hope so and it would make sense in all sorts of ways. (See https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/17/terence-skeffington-smyth/ ). I am also slightly intrigued by the strange idea that cocaine was a good way of getting through opiate withdrawal. It does serve to portray Anthea as a Good (if somewhat unorthodox) Samaritan but I am not entirely convinced.A host of other questions spring to mind. How much was “any you don’t want”? How much would £60 worth have been in 1932 – not to mention £1200?  Who was the mysterious Countess?

Anthea and Patrick Gamble as children

Anthea Rosemary Gamble (1906-1960) and her brother Patrick  ( 1905-1956) were definitely part of the young “Smart Set”. Though not rich in the way Elvira was, they enjoyed high social status due to their father being Dean of Exeter. They were Belgravia born and bred, growing up in Sloane Street. Both children seem to have embraced with some enthusiasm the freedoms and pleasures that the twenties offered them..

Patrick hosted one of the early “Blackbirds” parties in Mayfair, for the all-black cast of the stage show that had such an impact on the Bright Young People. It may have been at this gathering that Brenda Dean Paul became enamoured of the idea of being a “coloured dancer” and suggests she was already a friend of the Anthea’s, who would have been there also.

Florence Mills and Blackbirds Chorus, London Pavilion Sep 1926

Patrick was a friend of Matthew Ponsonby, brother of the incorrigible Elizabeth, who was to become close to many of Elvira’s circle – Hugh Wade especially. Evelyn Waugh’s diaries describe his dining with Matthew and Patrick (Matthew is the real-life source of the “drunk and disorderly” car episode in Brideshead Revisited). They also record his misgivings about attending the wedding, in 1928, of Anthea to Dudley Carew.

Anthea, variously  described as “lovely” and “beautiful”, married the cricket-writer and novelist Dudley Charles Carew at Exeter.The marriage was not a success. Carew wrote many years later, “My whole whirlwind affair with Anthea, culminating in my engagement, had an air of unreality about it”. He compared their incompatibility and the marriage to Waugh’s own short-lived relationship with Evelyn Gardner but added that ” Evelyn’s lacked the touches of fantastic extravaganza that illuminated my own (to Anthea Gamble). Fantastic is the right word, and that element was heightened by a liberal attitude to alcohol”. The couple divorced in 1933 but had lived separate lives for some time before that.

He-Evelyn, She-Evelyn

Dudley Carew was an odd-character. A gifted writer on cricket, his “To The Wicket” is one of the finest works on the county game. It is also a nostalgic tribute to the inter-war years and includes a spirited defence of the , by 1946 almost universally despised, Bright Young People. His novels and poetry have lasted less well. He was at Lancing with Waugh and hero-worshipped him all his life. Waugh however, although spending much of the 1920s in his company, was at best patronising and later on completely dismissive of his acolyte. Carew, though hurt, continued to be a loyal advocate, going so far as to deny rumours of Waugh’s youthful homosexual escapades and even ridiculing suggestions of homosexuality at Lancing (where Tom Driberg was a prefect!).

Whether he was the “Mr.Carew” who ended the evening with Brian Howard and Plunket-Greene on the night of the shooting, I can’t be sure but it is more than possible. Whether he was in anyway related to the “Philip Carew” who died after a cocaine binge at a Chelsea party that Elvira attended shortly before that event, I cannot say as the incident, mentioned by Peter Cotes, has so far proved impossible to verify.

Anthea, in the meantime, like so many of Elvira’s friends was a young married woman with no husband in any real sense, and hence free to enjoy the party circuit. She and Brenda Dean Paul became closer and, although she undoubtedly indulged in her share of excesses. does appear to have done her best to look after her self-destructive friend. Her fine and the conditions of her probation, sent to Mowbray House under strict supervision, suggests that the court had no doubt that by 1932 Anthea also had a drug-problem. One Gamble who certainly did have was Gertrude, whose suicide in August 1932 after spending time with Elvira in France is one of the oddest aspects of the whole case. She was not, however, related, as far as I can tell.

Patrick Gamble married Basil Dean’s ex-wife, Lady Mercy Greville, in 1936 – but that too did not last. By the late 1930s both Patrick and Anthea had faded from public view and I can find no post-war references to either.

I will leave the puzzle of the Countess and the presence in court of the rather dubious Dr. Frederick Stuart to a later post.

Washington Hotel

Finally, it is perhaps worth noting that at the time of her arrest Anthea Carew was living at the impressive Art Nouveau styled hotel the Washington, Curzon Street, Mayfair. This hardly yells out poverty to me. For more pictures and information on this impressive building, still a hotel, see  http://www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/commercial/22.html

“29th June 1932


Elvira Dolores Barney


Central Criminal Court


I beg to state that the  above named has been under mental and physical observation since her reception on June 4th. I have already submitted a report on June 8th giving a list of abrasions and bruises which I found on the prisoner after her reception to prison. She is in good health, has not shown any signs of physical illness, she has slept well, shown no symptoms of drug taking, and has increased one and a half pounds in weight since reception.


She has had good health but has had to undergo an operation for middle-ear disease and she met with a serious accident some twelve months ago in which she broke her lower jaw and has since required special treatment for her teeth.


I have examined her on various occasions, she has always conversed rationally, shown no signs of delusions or hallucinations and her conduct has been normal except on one or two occasions when she has shown hysterical manifestations.

I am of the opinion that she is of sound mind and fit to plead the indictment.

I have the honour to be,


your obedient servant

John Hall Morton

Governor and Medical Officer”

Elvira in 1932                                        

There are a number of points worth exploring in this statement. Firstly, there is the denial in the first paragraph of Elvira’s drug-taking. There must have been a line of inquiry that suggested such an involvement, otherwise why mention the issue at all?

Secondly, Elvira’s medical history and the after-effects of the car-crash modify the usual narrative. I am assuming that this was the same incident in Piccadilly when Napper Dean Paul was also injured. Apart from sounding a lot more serious than generally reported, I wonder whether the marked change in Elvira’s appearance in 1931-32 was the result of the crash rather than her life of “debauchery”. It also can’t have had the most calming effect on her already turbulent personality. Of “middle ear disease” I know nothing but it has been linked to mental illness and schizophrenia by some doctors (then and now).

Of Elvira’s present mental condition the letter seems a little complacent. What “hysterical manifestations”? How many – “one or two” hardly smacks of scientific accuracy? I am not implying any sort of cover-up but for a woman about to go on trial for her life the general tone and brevity of the report suprises me a little.

The writer of the report, John Hall Morton, was in charge of Holloway Prison from 1921 until his death, aged 52, in 1935. He was, by the standards of the time, an enlightened governor, famously installing mirrors in the cells  – much to the delight of the female inmates and angry mutterings from the usual press sources. He was also an opponent of capital punishment. This stance, highly unusual in the service, had come about after he had been required to record the horrific state of Edith Thompson’s corpse after she was executed in Holloway in 1923.

Edith Thompson

The Edith Thompson-Freddie Bywaters trial was one of a number of high-level murder trials  that captured the popular imagination between the wars and her cruel sentence (her boyfriend had actually stabbed her husband) has been the basis for novels (A Pin to See The Peepshow) and films (Another Life) ever since. Along with Madame Fahmy, acquitted of shooting her husband at the Savoy Hotel, Edith Thompson’s was the name most often linked with Elvira’s by crime reporters at the time. Fortunately, Elvira had a more competent defence team than Edith.

Morton’s last act as governor/medical officer was to write a report on Alma Rattenbury, the central character in the next great scandal involving sex and murder (and the subject of Terence Rattigan’s Cause Celebre ). That trial also had an accusation of drug use on the part of the accused but the various doctors, in Alma’s case, found no evidence although in retrospect it looks very likely.Alma’s story is well worth reading alongside Elvira’s, not so much for the “whodunnit” element but for the light they both throw on pre-War attitudes to sexually active women.

Alma Rattenbury

Apart from these high-profile figures the most famous, and very regular, resident of Holloway under Morton’s tenure was someone Elvira would have known well. This was the Queen of London Nightclubs, the legendary Kate Meyrick. However, she deserves a post to herself.

Party at Silver Slipper club celebrating Mrs.Meyrick’s release from Holloway

Harry Gold at The Cafe de Paris

Harry Gold (1907-2005) was a stalwart of the British Jazz scene. playing professionally from the mid twenties until the beginning of the 21st century. In the early 1930s he was part of the Roy Fox Orchestra and very much at the centre of the West End high society club and cafe circuit.

Harry Gold in glasses far right

His autobiography is an invaluable record of the Dance Band years, full of humour and insight into a generation of musicians who wanted to play “Hot Jazz” but had to slip it into sets between the strict-tempo and novelty numbers that were the standard fare of the Society orchestras. It also has a certain critical edge as Gold, an Eastender, observed the wealthy clientele who packed the dance-floor.

Many of the places Harry played were regular haunts of Elvira and her friends. In 1930 he was with Vic Filmer’s band at the Melton Club on Kingly Street, Soho. This club ran from 11pm to 7am and was one of the first “All-nighter” sessions in England. Like so many in its wake, it was closed down after a few months by the police. He then moved on to Murray’s Club in Beak Street, Soho.

Murrays 1926

Murray’s Cabaret Club opened in 1913 and was run for most of its long life by Percival “Pops” Murray” and then his son David. The first manager, and the man who set the tone for fifty years of flirting with scandal, was an American “gangster” called Jack May. May is often credited with introducing morphine and cocaine to the London club scene and although he is unlikely to have been a lone innovator  he was for some twenty years one of the main local sources for recreational drugs. He was an associate of Brilliant Chang, the 1920s’ favourite oriental villain, who was part of Mrs.Meyrick’s club empire – though she denied it. May avoided the headlines but was probably the more influential of the two.

Brilliant Chang

May opened a second Murray’s at Maidenhead, which, strange as it seems today, was a place then synonymous with adultery and general hedonism.Cookham, Bray, Maidenhead, Taplow – all those places along the river were weekend haunts for the more adventurous party people – a much repeated witticism from the era  ran “Are you married, or do you live in Maidenhead?” (the same line was used, in reference to the Happy Valley crowd, about Kenya,) The emergence of British film studios close to the river increased the glamorous pull of the “Thames Riviera”. I suspect that Elvira’s weekend retreat might have been at Taplow rather than Henley, as stated by Viva King, as there is a cottage let to a Mrs.Barney there in 1931, but both addresses meant a certain “licence”.

Murray’s Cabaret Club at Maidenhead had an underlit glass dancefloor and, as Ernest Dudley reminisced to film historian Matthew Sweet, was a hotbed of drug-dealing. “Cocaine was what people came to Jack May’s club for.It was slipped to you in packets, very quietly, when you coughed up the loot.”  Even though this refers to the early 1920s, it is unlikely that the set up had changed much by the end of the decade.

Back in town, Gold was getting used to playing second-fiddle (saxophone, in fact) to the cabaret acts that were the key draw in the night-clubs of the era. The set-up varied little from venue to venue. The band warmed up the guests, played quietly while parties dined – most clubs served food. Then the chorus girls livened things up (Googie Withers started off as a dancer at Murray’s as did future Trade Unionist Honor Blair).

Googie Withers

The cabaret usually started at midnight.The  headliner at Murray’s was Douglas Byng, whose camp act was considered both racy and sophisticated by many a bright young person.After the cabaret the band catered for dancers only and were able to play a  little freer and “hotter”.

Pretty excruciating to my ears but an informative glimpse at a standard, posh night out in the early 1930s.

Harry Gold moved on to the popular Kit-Kat Club, the Monseigneur and the very upmarket  Chez Anglais, all favourite night spots of Elvira’s. He also took part in the short-lived craze for out of town “Roadhouses”, playing at the Spider’s Web on the distinctly unglamorous Watford bypass. By now he was with Roy Fox, doing some arranging and singing pop songs of the period as one of the sub-Crosby style “Fox Cubs “trio.

Roy Fox’ Orchestra had a residency at the Cafe De Paris in 1934 – post-trial but unchanged from the place Elvira visited on the night of the shooting. Harry Gold’s thoughts on the establishment are as candid an insight into how the musicians viewed the clientele as we are likely to get.

“”Following a successful season at the Kit-Kat, we left to go to the Cafe De Paris in Leicester Square, a prestigious venue frequented by the highest of high society. It was a real top hat, white tie and tails place. In a way we felt it was a bit of a “leg-up” because it had been a famous West End spot since time immemorial. The dance floor was tiny and very few dancers could be accommodated. Nevertheless, it would be full of couples moving cheek to cheek, not always in tempo but, certainly to those on the dance floor,enjoyable. The Cafe de Paris was not as large as the Kit-Kat, but it was larger than the Cafe Anglais and included a balcony on three sides of the room….

The cabaret was the main attraction, being assembled from the best artistes in the world, recruited from the Continent and America. The band took second place. We were only needed  to accompany the acts or play for dancing after the show had ended. It was interesting to watch tables being brought from their hidden store to be placed on the dance floor so more and more customers came to be seated in time for the cabaret. Panic stricken waiters, under the eagle eye of the restaurant manager, rushed back and forth with chairs, tablecloths, glasses and cutlery until there was no space left for dancing. All the activity became even more noticeable when, at the end of the cabaret performance, people began leaving in droves, and once again waiters rushed around removing tables and chairs to make way for the dancing to resume.”

“It was a glamorous lifestyle for the people who went to the Cafe De Paris to enjoy themselves. I loved being inside that glittering world. Who wouldn’t? We musicians came from ordinary backgrounds but our music gave us a way into that society environment.But at the same time I was very conscious of the injustice of it all. There were many people at that time who had nothing. The divide between the haves and have-nots was obvious. There was unemployment everywhere. I watched the rich patrons at the Cafe De Paris and thought about it politically. It reinforced my socialist convictions.”

Which is, of course, why the press and the establishment were so troubled by Elvira’s excesses.  She might have made the wider public start to think along the lines of the observant Harry Gold.

Harry enjoyed a long career. As did Murray’s Club,which hit the headlines in the 1960s as the place that employed both Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. They were the unwitting triggers to a scandal that heralded a new era but in many ways harked back to, and was dependent upon, the world of privilege that Elvira and her circle took for granted.